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The Commencement Speech from the James Siblings

kkazan's picture

 What follows is a fictional commencement speech given to a graduating class of Bryn Mawr women by the most notable members of the James family. Though Alice never stepped foot on this campus, I have put myself in her frame of mind and have come with what I feel she would have bestowed upon the women who were able to do what she had not been allowed. As for Henry, he did give a commencement speech here at Bryn Mawr, but I must say it was not what I had in mind after reading The Portrait of a Lady, so I have written him a new speech which I think speaks more to the women he was addressing than his own speech. William also spoke to the student body in his lifetime. While I enjoyed what he had to say, it did not fit with his many philosophies, so I have tried to write a speech that took advice from his writings. As most of the work is my own, the quoted parts have come directly from each speaker’s own work. The speaking order is from youngest to oldest: Alice, Henry, and then William. I put in a little interaction between the siblings, as I ended up tying together what each had said in some part of another’s speech. I must say I had not intended to do this, it just happened. I suppose I found some common ground among all the siblings in their writings and it has shown up in their speeches. 




Many people here today may think that I am not the best, or most appropriate person to talk to this graduating class. It is true that I have never had a formal education like my brothers have or like you all have had. But I was honored to be asked to speak alongside my brothers today. You see while they have had the opportunity to flourish in an educational sense, I was not given that opportunity. Most of my life has been confined to either my father’s house or my sick room, neither of which allowed for much worldly experience. But that is not what makes an appropriate commencement speaker. I may not have any direct experience in the world you are leaving or the world you are heading into, but I think that may be what qualifies me. I am here to let you know how extremely lucky you are, and to remind you that not every woman has had the luck and good fortune as you have had to be educated at such a fine school. Often “I wonder whether if I had an education I should have been more or less a fool than I am,” and think that seeing you all sit there has decided my mind. It is not the education that I am lacking that would make me less foolish, but the lack of opportunity that has made me who I am. It is important that you all recognize that fact and live your lives in such a way that pays tribute to all you have learned and been given here.

            The way I feel about my life is not that it is the education that I really missed out on, but the opportunity to grow in the company of women who I could feed off of intellectually. “You must remember that a woman, by nature, needs much less to feed upon than a man, a few emotions and she is satisfied.” But men, who I spent my early life surrounded by, take much more to be satisfied. They, as I am sure

most of you will learn, need to be constantly reminded of your love for them. Though they do not see this, and expect women to be the emotional sex, it is tiring to keep them satisfied. Here you have only had your good woman friends to satisfy. I wonder what kind of freedom that has afforded you. I have glimpsed that freedom in my life, but have never been able to relish in it due to my sickness. I have always been a captive, either to the men around me or to my sickness. My brothers will shake their heads, especially William here, and say that this is all my imagination and my own creating, but I am sure that you seated below me understand what I am saying. This freedom you feel now may not last for long, but revel in it and enjoy the company of your women friends as much as, and as long as possible. For women are truly unlike men and need each other to be completely happy.

            To the annoyance of William, I am going to talk to you all about my sickness, just a bit, because I believe there is a lesson to be learned from it. It has kept me in my bed for the second half of my life and is what opened my eyes up to the ridiculous constraints of society that women have to put up with. Once again William is shaking his head, but he only proves my point. As women, society expects certain things from us, none of which coincide with the wonderful education you have been given or the sweet taste of freedom I imagine you have felt here. Society wants to puts women into boxes; they want us to read the same things, act the same way, and essentially be the same women. But “what a sense of superiority it gives one to escape reading the same book which everyone else is reading.” I imagine you all know exactly what I mean. What a sense of life it gives you to break away from the proper group and just live your own free life. There is nothing better, but I would think that you have all discovered that for yourselves. You have all seen “those poor creatures who never find their bearings, but are tossed like dried leaves hither, thither and yon at the mercy of every event which o'ertakes them...who never dimly suspect that the only thing which survives is the resistance we bring to life and not the strain life brings to us.” I think that this is the advantage you hold over the others. It took me a while to understand this, to feel free enough to not fit into what others want me to be, but to be my own person. I would have been so happy to have known this at your age, but at least I know it now.

            You have all been given the golden key. As an educated woman, you are going to be able to choose things for yourselves. You won’t be subject to others as I was once. And for this you should grateful. The last four years that you have spent living in these castles, walking among these wonderful landscapes with your girlfriends is a time I hope you never forget. What you have learned here will carry you far in the world, which you are about to go out into. “The success or failure of a life, as far as posterity goes, seems to lie in the more or less luck of seizing the right moment to escape.” You all will graduate here with the correct knowledge of what and when to escape. You have everything you need to life a successful life, and I hope you know that. What I would have given to be sitting where you are today, knowing what you all know. But that was not my path. I am now past the prime of life, what an odd thing it is to feel that at any age, but I am sure of the fact that you, the new generation of intellectual women, will make up for what I was not able to do in this world. And I want to thank you for that.

            I will now allow my brothers, who know much more of the world that you are jumping into today, to speak to you. But please, don’t forget what I have said.



I think that what Alice has given you all is quite good advice, and I cannot help but wonder where she would have been today if she had sat in those seats alongside you all. I am sure she would have had a life much more worth living and have meet some women that could converse with her on her high intellectual level. But that was not meant to be.

As I am here today talking to a group of such independent and intelligent women, I thought that I might take the liberty to give my advice to the graduating class from one of my novels, The Portrait of a Lady. I, however, want to make it clear that I am choosing to speak from novel because I am speaking to a group of women whose realm some people would say is that of the novel, but because I find many similarities between you lovely ladies and my heroin who had the most potential, Isabel Archer. A woman who stood on her own two feet and had the world at her finger-tips, I hope that she may be an example of what can happen in the large, unfriendly world out there. As graduates from such an elite school as Bryn Mawr, I hope that you may be more successful in life and love than my Miss Archer.

            “The great advantage of being a literary woman” as you are is “that you could go everywhere and do everything.” This is such an important advantage that should be taken by each and every one of you. Don’t for a second believe what the some society would like you to believe, that an “unmarried woman isn’t independent,” and that “there are all sorts of things [you] can’t do.” Be like my lovely Isabel and delight in your independence. “Most women [do] with themselves nothing at all; they wait, in attitudes more or less gracefully passive, for a man to come that way and furnish them with a destiny. Isabel's originality was that she gave one an impression of having intentions of her own.” Many of your fellow sex will do just this: they will sit and wait for a man to make them something. Follow Isabel’s path and remember that you too can be an original. Men are not the only sex that should be allowed to independently make something of themselves. Each one of you seated there can take your life into your hands and live by your intentions. There is nothing more beautiful in the world than a woman who does that. Don’t afford yourselves the luxuries of being “timid and conventional,” instead “try to judge things for [yourselves]. To judge wrong, I think is more honorable than not to judge at all.” Don’t be mere sheep in the flock. Choose your own fate, as my brother would say, you are in total control of it. There would be nothing worse than to watch such promising women fall into the hands of men who do not believe that their opinion or thoughts have any value. You all seem “to me to be soaring far up in the blue – to be sailing in the bright light, over the heads of men.” Don’t allow one of us to bring you back down to our level. Keep your heads above those of men and you will be free from their judgments and controls. Don’t allow one, as my poor Isabel did, to catch your foot and bring you down. You are all far beyond the reach of most men. Keep it that way. Do not allow them to take the air out of your balloon. You are most lovely when flying high above the minds of men. Don’t let any man tell you otherwise. If they cannot understand or see your beauty at such heights, they do not deserve you. They will drag you down to a realm that is far below your own and the one that you were meant to live and move around in. Let your mind flow freely in the clouds.

            You are all young people with many theories, theories of your own. Your imaginations are remarkably active. “It has been [your] fortune to possess a finer mind that most of the persons among whom [your] lot was cast; to have a larger perception of surrounding facts, and to care for knowledge that [is] tinged with the unfamiliar.” Your education and pursuit of knowledge should not end here at your graduation. Your college education should just be the beginning of your explorations of the world. Pursue it with all you have and allow this pursuit to take you to places you mothers never could have dreamed of. Take everything your wide eyes see and turn it into your own.

            Keeping that in mind, do not be afraid to live whatever life you choose. Live, and love, by your own judgments and opinions. There is no one else better qualified, no matter their gender, to make the decisions you will have to make in your life. Do not follow a path carved out for you by your fathers or husbands, carve your path. Be independent of others and take your path to wherever it may lead you. If along the way you meet someone whose path collides with yours, make sure that you do not give anything up for them. Your husband should love to watch you thrive and soar in the skies that your education here has opened up for you. “Whatever life you lead you must put your soul in it – to make any sort of success in it; and from the moment you do that it ceases to be romance, I assure you it will become” a happy reality. Live your life fully and to the best of your ability – which I must admit will mean all of you will live lives many men could never achieve. Don’t doubt that success will come to you. It will, all you need to do is to follow your desires and put everything you contain within yourselves into your success. “You can't always please yourself; you must sometimes please other people. That, I admit, you're very ready to do.” Your professors here, I am sure, have taught you that not everything in life worth living is going to be completely agreeable, but this, I am sure you already know. “But there's another thing that's still more important--you must often displease others. You must always be ready for that--you must never shrink from it.” For many of you, this will be hard. As women, you are taught to be agreeable and to please your fathers and your husbands, but this will not always be the right course in your life. If your path leads you away from the favor of some, you must follow it and not worry. Don’t allow your gender to hold you back because you are expected to please certain people. At times, you must disappoint. This will be hard for all of you, but I assure you, you are capable of doing this. Decisions are not always easy to make, but don’t allow your decisions to be made solely with others in mind. Be your chief consideration. It will pay back in the end. It did for Isabel. As hard as it is too disappoint or disobey, at times it will help you find yourself and put you back onto your path.

            I will leave you this: "live all you can; it's a mistake not to. It doesn't so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven't had that, what have you had?" I wish you all good luck in your pursuits and dreams. If anyone can, it is this group of young women that will live up to their potential. Live with your soul and your imagination. They will never lead you wrong.





            Now I normally don’t do this, but I must say Alice spoke quite right in saying that your education here allows you to make choices that will make successful lives for you all. You see, your lives, the path they take, and where they end up are all up to you and the choices you make in your lifetime. But my telling you this is not going to help you unless you choose to believe in it. I should say many beliefs are misguided, but this a belief you should choose to call true. “Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.” If you believe in your choices and choose to live a successful life and I have no doubt that each and every one of you will. You will be surprised by how much your will can bend what are thought to be truths in this world. I am by no means saying that you should not base your life on object evidence and certitudes. “Objective evidence and certitude are doubtless very fine ideals to play with, but where on this moonlit and dream-visited planet are they found?” They are not. So choose what you believe in wisely and your life will be the better for it. “On every account it is better to ... keep weighing reasons pro et contra with an indifferent hand, but that will lead you to no definite path, for there is not definite path. Like my brother said, you must make your own. In making this path, I suggest you use the pragmatic method with which I am so enamored. One can argue that any which way you choose to go is the correct way, and it may be, if you so choose to believe in it, but if you stick with this idea, you will never go anywhere and your life will amount to nothing. “The pragmatic method…is to try to interpret each notion by tracing its respective practical consequences.” To point your life in the right direction, use reason to interpret which path to choose. I assure you the right choice, the choice you should believe in, will have the most practical, direct outcomes in your life. That is how you will choose what to believe. After all, “What was reason given to men for, said some eighteenth century writer, except to enable them to find reasons for what they want to think and do?”

            Now many of you are going to doubt that you should only believe in something that has a practical outcome, something that lends itself to reason, for many of you already believe in something that is neither. Many of you were raised to believe to believe in something that guides your life for you, knows the best thing for you…and I am not speaking of your fathers. I am speaking of something that knows all, that is always one step ahead of us, something that we can teach nothing to: a higher being. I am not saying that you need to betray your core belief by believing in your choices and by believing that you can determine your own path. No, these two can go hand in hand. What that means is that you have faith. “Faith means belief in something concerning which doubt is theoretically possible.” You may not come to believe in God pragmatically, but you have faith to keep that belief alive. To keep this faith though, you must have experiences that act as proof or evidence that what you believe in is a reality, because of “the practical faith that we must go on experiencing and thinking over our experience, for only thus can our opinions grow more true.” I too have faith in something omniscient. It does not mean that I do not have the power to direct my path by choosing to believe in the most practical way. It is possible to do both. I urge you to do both.

            Here at Bryn Mawr College, you young women have been given the keys to the universe. You have been taught skills, how to think, and how to reason. You have been given these gifts that others have not. “The universe has always appeared to the natural mind as a kind of enigma, of which the key must be sought in the shape of some illuminating or power bringing word or name. That word names the universe’ principle, and to possess it is, after a fashion, to possess the universe itself.” I believe that you all posses that word, and with it you can do anything. You have worked out that the world is an enigma that can be solved and understood, and I believe that you all understand it. What you know is that there is only one thing needed to understand the universe: yourselves. “The only material we have at our disposal for making a picture of the whole world is supplied by the various proportions of that world of which we have already had experience.” You women have learned many things here, but the real lesson was the sum of all of your experiences. While at this school, you each experienced different things, things that you would not have experienced had you not attended here. From these experiences, you now have the basis for all of your other experiences and choices. Your years here, the small events that occurred, the little problems that you solved, those are what prepared you for the real world. You have a foundation of experience for every problem that you will ever come across. And you are prepared, for you have already worked them out in some way or another. You hold the answers to the world in the experiences that you have had. You are prepared for anything that could be thrown your way through your ability to reason.

            Now the only thing left for you beautiful women to do, is to put what you learned into practice. Everyday, as I have said, you will encounter variations of the experiences and problems that you have always faced. But do not leave here believing that you know everything. Your training for life does not end here. I do not mean to say that you must leave here and study, or go on in your education to be prepared for the world. I do not believe that you need any more education or titles to add to your arsenal of weapons. No that is not it. What I mean to say is that you must take up your own training. “That is, be systematically ascetic or heroic in little unnecessary points, do every day or two something for no other reason than that you would do it.” In doing this, you are widening your base of experiences and are teaching your mind new pathways to apply when dealing with the unfortunate event that one day you will run into something that you have not been trained for. You will be keeping your mind active and on its toes. In this way, you will learn how to think in different ways and make those new ways accessible to your brain. I promise that this will pay off in the end. Your brain must keep up with the practice that it has received at this institution. It must stay limber in order to experience things in different ways. But this is no new idea, for I am sure you have all done little exercises that have stretched your minds and, at the time seemed pointless, but were later called upon in another scenario.

            This is not what I want to leave you with today. I want to leave you with the idea of positive thinking and its impact on your life. As I have said you can choose the path your life takes so “be strong and of good courage. Act for the best, hope for the best, take what comes…if death ends all, we cannot meet death better.”